fountain penImage: Pixabay


Members of the boomer and X generations who struggled to master cursive handwriting at school — perhaps sustaining a few raps over the knuckles along the way — and have since abandoned it in favour of tapping on keyboards may congratulate themselves on being ahead of the curve, so to speak. The educational world seems to be following suit.

From next year handwriting will no longer be taught as a regular thing in Finnish schools. America’s new national curriculum, the Common Core, drops the subject after first grade. An Australian academic looks forward to the day when her country will settle for something similar. The keyboard is so much more time efficient, she argues, and helps teachers by producing writing that is easier to read.

Making tasks quicker and easier are winning qualities these days when we are all in such a hurry. But does it matter if we abandon handwriting, turning it into a quaint, esoteric art? And are we really gaining so much, anyway, from chaining ourselves to keyboards?

The answers are: yes, it matters; and, no, probably not.

Losing literacy skills

According to a New York Times article surveying recent research on the matter, children learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand. Writing things down draws attention to spelling, sentence construction and the form of letters to an extent not possible using devices with auto-complete and auto-correct functions.

Handwriting also helps children to create, imagine and recall information. Psychologists, such as Stanislaus Dehaene at the College de France in Paris, suggest that this is due to the activation of a unique neural circuit that facilitates learning by linking the gesture of handwriting with the child’s recognition of letter forms.

This view is supported by the research of US psychologist Karin James. Her 2012 study of children who had not yet learned to read compared those who copied a letter or shape by hand with those who typed or traced it. Children who had drawn the letter freehand showed increased activity in three areas of the brain that adults use when they read and write, while the other two groups of children showed no such neural activity.

Another study Dr James is doing suggests it is only the actual effort that engages the brain’s motor pathways and delivers the learning benefits of handwriting.

Beyond literacy: memory, self control  

Research also suggests that the benefits of handwriting for children extend beyond literacy to the realm of ideas, character and correcting developmental disorders.

Virginia Berninger, another psychologist doing research in this field, told the Times that, when children composed text by hand they not only produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. Also, “When [older] children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory – and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”

Cursive writing, of course, is the gold standard for handwriting and may have distinct, possibly superior benefits for children. Dr Berninger suggests that it may “train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not”. Some researchers say that it may be a path to treating dyslexia, while other say the same about dysgraphia – motor control difficulties in forming letters.

dickensWould Dickens have been even more productive with a keyboard? Dickensblog

Adults, too, may absorb new information better with a pen or pencil in hand.

Students, anyway, learn better when they take notes in longhand than when they type them on a keyboard, according to many researchers. Some have explained this by the potential for distraction and “multitasking” (checking Facebook during a lecture) when laptops are used, but psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheim say that, even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they can lead to shallower processing of information.

In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

But even more is at stake

There are other arguments against consigning cursive handwriting to the dustbin of history: for example, the digital divide that means people in some parts of the world still rely on it, the loss of an art form and even a (somewhat dubious) science.

But the greatest loss of all would be the intimacy of a handwritten letter, with all that it conveys of personality, thought, and care for the person receiving it.

My handwriting may not tell you all the secrets of my psyche, as graphologists claim, but it is mine, unique to me, and my letter, in the neatest cursive I can muster these days, with the help of a decent pen and good quality paper, represents a little gift of myself to some distant friend or relative. It’s an interpersonal event that cannot be matched by a typed letter, let alone an email.

Compared with the ease and cheapness of sending an email or making a phone call, the letter involves an effort, and this not only conveys my respect and love for the recipient (how much more at home “dear” looks on a handwritten page than in an electronic message) but is a small moral victory for me. Each such missive is another triumph over the slide into casualness and laziness that can whittle away a relationship.

The letter typed on paper may substitute quite well in some respects for the handwritten one, but is that what is actually happening? It seems more likely that the decline of the freehand variety represents an absolute decline in personal letters. (Even business mail is taking a hit from electronic billing and payments, and the New Zealand postal service, for example, has signalled that deliveries to households will be cut back.)

Texting and Skyping and telephoning are wonderful everyday ways of keeping in touch with distant family and friends, but what sort of family history or public biography can be constructed out of the ephemera of electronic communications? Digital diaries seem seem just as unlikely to yield anything of lasting value.

So it is not only literacy and learning that could be suffering from the triumph of the keyboard; family bonds, friendships and our relationship with the past could also be in jeopardy as the gentle, if initially laborious, art of cursive handwriting itself passes into history.

And now it is time for me to sign off the keyboard and write that letter to my Japanese friend that I have been putting off for … too long.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet